What is Transmitted: (3) Patriarchal Authority?

Traditionally, teaching transmission adds one’s name to the list of Zen “patriarchs.” Perhaps this isn’t the greatest image for here and now…

Lineage charts (kechimyaku) play important roles in Zen ceremonies. These purport to show a direct line of transmission all the way from Shakyamuni Buddha, through ancestors in India, China, and elsewhere, and ending with the recipient of the chart. A red “bloodline” connects the names. The word patriarchs, from the Greek for “ruling father,” is traditionally synonymous with ancestors, since all but some very recently recognized ancestors are men.

Students receive a lineage chart when we receive the  Buddhist precepts (ethical teachings) in the ceremony of Jukai. The relevant use of the term transmission for this discussion, however, is at the ceremonies of teaching transmission from a fully transmitted teacher to their “Dharma heir.”  A teacher who receives full transmission becomes an “ancestor” themself if they convey teaching authority on to further “heirs.” 

This probably seemed (or seems) to make perfect sense in cultures that are structured around patriarchal lineages and that stress filial duties and the honoring of forebears. One sees a similar pattern in the scriptures of the Abrahamic traditions, with long lists of who “begat” whom. In such a culture, the fathers are indeed expected to rule—not just over their wives and daughters, but also over their sons. Elder males are to be honored, served, and obeyed! Often this is justified in religious terms, as consistent with an imagined natural hierarchy of the divine to the emperor or pope; the emperor or pope to fathers and priests; and fathers, whether familial or religious, to everybody else. 

But the emphasis on lineage, fatherly authority, and ancestors doesn’t make much sense when transplanted to the contemporary West. The idea of royal or noble “bloodlines” has largely gone the way of the dodo. Western feminist activism has made inroads on patriarchal thinking and oppressive patriarchal structures. At our Jukai ceremonies, we now give a Women Ancestor’s Chart along with the patriarchal one (and are considering introducing a nonbinary one—probably featuring Avalokiteshvara/Guanyin). Western cultures tend to emphasize individualism and independence over filial duty, and the future over the past. In fact, becoming a Zen student here usually means breaking away from the spiritual practice (or lack thereof) of one’s actual ancestors. 

Why, then, should we tolerate a patriarchal attitude where teacher/student relations are concerned? The notion that transmitted teachers are authoritative figures who must be served and obeyed is still alive, and often reinforced by forms, ceremonies, and honorifics (e.g., Zen “master”) that treat teachers as extra-special.  And, I believe, this image is behind a lot of the troubles and scandals affecting U.S. Buddhist communities. 

Teachers who expect to be honored, served, and obeyed, and students who go along with this, may perpetuate the notion that teachers are somehow god-like, with a direct line to the absolute. It may reinforce students’ desire to believe that the people we are turning to for help in figuring out our own lives, already, as a result of their specialness, have their lives all figured out. Students may then hand over too much of their own power to these teachers, in hopes that they will someday “inherit” that “thing” that the teacher has. It’s difficult to see how inflated teacher egos and abuses of power could fail to follow.  

I know that I have held idealized images of my Zen teachers. For example, I remember my very first teacher giving a talk about our (Zen) vows and our intention to keep them. Being newly divorced, I felt bad about breaking my marital promise of “till death do us part.” Surely, I believed, this teacher and his wife (who was also in the sangha) were doing better than me! When I mentioned my distress during the discussion after the talk, the teacher gave a general sort of reply. I think I would have had a more realistic view of Zen and Zen teachers had he mentioned that, while he began Zen practice at a young age, his own first two marriages had ended in divorce. I also certainly held an idealized image of a more recent teacher of mine who engaged in serious misconduct with a student. It took me ten days from the time he talked to me about this for me to even have the thought, “I wonder if he told me the whole truth?” (He hadn’t.) 

Even if a teacher manages to maintain appropriate humility in spite of student idealization, it seems to me that all of this “family line” talk is still likely to cause problems. Framing teacher/student relations in parent/child terms seems like a recipe for encouraging psychological transference and countertransference! Neither teachers who treat students like children, nor students who make teachers into players in their unresolved childhood dramas, make for a healthy sangha.  

Of course, it’s also well-recognized that the clean line of transmission shown in the chart contains a great deal that is controversial and/or totally made up. Going way back, stuff had to be invented or rearranged to cover gaps in recorded history. And as  Keizan’s Record of Zen transmission gets closer to Keizan’s own time, controversies about who are the “true” successors get more frequent coverage. And Keizan only takes us up to about 1300 C.E.! It doesn’t take long, as one gets familiar with more recent history, to see that lineages divide, merge, interweave, break, die out, and possibly pick up somewhere else with great frequency. I love the symbolic meaning of the lineage chart as signifying a connection between our minds and hearts and those of many others distant in space and time. And any literal interpretation is extremely shaky. Lineage claims have never actually provided any sort of iron-clad legitimation of teaching authority.

A Zen teacher’s job is to help students find what they themselves never lost: Buddha nature. I’ve heard it said that we are engaged in “selling water by the river.” Teachers are students who are a bit further along this spiritual path, and may be able to help those coming behind avoid some of the distractions and traps. However, we are still human and have clay feet. We may not be further along than our students in psychological, social, intellectual or moral development, and are very likely to be less informed and skilled in some areas.  We should be very wary about having loyal, blindly obedient “followers” lest we lead them off the nearest cliff. 

There are probably both advantages and drawbacks to granting formal authorization to teach via a lineage-based (teacher-to-new-teacher) system. Alternatives such as seminary training may give more comprehensive education, or be more dry and rigid. Self-proclaimed teachers may be very good, or be quacks. But however we might structure the approval of teachers, there are good reasons to be leery of thinking of it as a blood inheritance of the right to expect to be served and obeyed.

Author: Julie A. Nelson

Julie A. Nelson is a writer on gender, ethics, economics, ecology, and Zen; a Professor of Economics, Emeritus; a Dharma Holder and Teaching Coordinator at the Greater Boston Zen Center; and mother of two grown children.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: